Three Days in the Deep
Read the book of Jonah first.[i]
“Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai.” (Jonah 1:1, ESV[ii])
God speaks to His people. We can assume this was not the first time the word of the Lord came to Jonah, and Jonah recognized the word of the Lord.
Jonah was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom. He shows up in 2 Kings 14:25 in the account of Jeroboam II. Jeroboam II was king of the northern kingdom of Israel during the ministries of Isaiah and Hosea. 2 Kings 14:25 says:
Jeroboam II recovered the territories of Israel between Lebo-hamath and the Dead Sea, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had promised through Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher.
In this account, we have evidence of some of the ministry of Jonah to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In the book of Jonah, we have a historical narrative that teaches God’s concern for the nations, God’s concern for His messenger and God’s concern for His people.
Going back to verse 1 and 2 of Jonah 1, it says:
1The LORD gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: 2“Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.”
Jonah is a Hebrew, a Jew, from Gath-hepher, which is in the same general area as Nazareth. As a Jew in that time, the people of Nineveh would have been Jonah’s enemies.
Here is a little of what we know about Nineveh. Nineveh, (abode of Ninus), was the capital of the ancient kingdom and empire of Assyria. The name appears to be compounded from that of an Assyrian deity "Nin," corresponding, it is conjectured, with the Greek Hercules, and occurring in the names of several Assyrian kings. It is first mentioned in the Old Testament in connection with the primitive dispersement and migrations of the human race. Asshur, or according to the marginal reading, which is generally preferred, Nimrod is there described, (Genesis 10:11) as extending his kingdom from the land of Shinar or Babylonia, in the south, to Assyria in the north and founding four cities, of which the most famous was Nineveh. Hence, Assyria was subsequently known to the Jews as "the land of Nimrod."[iii]
The early history of Assyria is involved in obscurity. We know from the sacred narrative that it was a powerful nation. Israel was subjugated by one of its monarchs in the period of the Judges, and during the reign of the kings the Assyrian power was an object of perpetual dread.
Jesus told us to love our enemies. However, Jonah did not reflect that quality. The violence of the Assyrian people is most likely behind Jonah’s reluctance. In fact, when God decides not to destroy Nineveh, Jonah says:
“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people
Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed, and feared that God would be merciful and compassionate, relenting on the promised destruction.
God speaks, and we are about to see God dealing with His messenger, Jonah. God is good, and since He allows suffering, it must be necessary. God needs to perform a surgery in Jonah’s life and it is going to take three days in the deep, in the belly of a fish, to perform that surgery. It is painful but necessary.
Jonah had some sort of rebellion in his heart. Jonah 1:3 says:
3But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the LORD. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the LORD by sailing to Tarshish.
The map shows Tarshish as being 2,500 miles from Joppa, or 3,000 miles from Nineveh. The text tells us that Jonah’s ship met with a violent storm. He was thrown overboard, swallowed by a fish and spit out on land three days later. However, the text does not tell us where the fish spit Jonah out. How far did Jonah have to walk to get to Nineveh?
The first chapter of Jonah says Jonah went to get away from the Lord, and then says he was hoping to escape from the Lord. Both of these phrases interpret for us the same Hebrew phrase that says Jonah was fleeing from the presence of the Lord.
Jonah recognized God is omnipresent. However, this did not stop Him from renouncing His office of prophet, or from leaving his place of duty.
Don’t we all tend to do the same thing when faced with a seriously objectionable assignment? The storm and the fish are not about the punishment of the prophet, but about God’s concern for His messenger and the lengths God will go to accomplish His work in our lives.
After three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed, and his prayer reveals the work God was doing in Jonah’s heart.
Jonah 2:2 says, “I cried out to the LORD in my great trouble.” Jonah describes his situation as being one of great trouble. He talks about being in the land of the dead, his life slipping away and being imprisoned in the earth. In verse 4 he says, “‘O LORD, you have driven me from your presence.” In chapter 1, he was trying to flee from the presence of the Lord. However, when he got what he wanted, he was not happy. His rebellion and hard heart toward his enemies took him to a place of suffering. However, the suffering brought about repentance, and Jonah says, “I will look once more toward your holy Temple.” (Jonah 2:4)
His statement in Jonah 2:8-9 is revealing. He says:
Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the LORD alone.
Jonah refers to those who turn their backs on all God’s mercies. This is what he had done by fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Therefore, because he also mentions worshiping false gods, I assume that he had worshiped false gods, not idols made of stone, but idols of the heart.
What is rebellion in our hearts toward God? 1 Samuel 15:23 tells us, “Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft, and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols.”
When Jonah rebelled, God could have sent someone else. He could have fired the rebellious prophet, chosen someone else and moved on. However, He did not. He worked with Jonah. God’s messenger needed to grow, learn and change. God used Nineveh to change His messenger.
God shows the same kind of grace toward all of us. God does not have to work with any of us. He chooses to work with us, to change us, to grow us and to confront the idols in our hearts.
Being convinced and spit out on dry land, Jonah finds himself on the way to Nineveh. He delivers God’s message of coming judgment, and then sits outside the city to watch the judgment happen.
However, Nineveh repents. Therefore, God does not carry out the destruction He had threatened, and Jonah is very angry. He says to God:
“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, LORD! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” (Jonah 4:2-3)
The sun is terribly hot. So, God causes a plant to grow and shade Jonah. Jonah is very grateful for the plant. However, God also arranged for a worm. The worm ate through the stem of the plant and the plant died. Jonah got so hot and uncomfortable that he wanted to die. Then God says, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?” (Jonah 4:9)
Jonah replies, “Yes, even angry enough to die!” (Jonah 4:9)
God points out that there are 120,000 people living in Nineveh who do not know their right hand from their left. Jonah had compassion for the plant but not for the people of Nineveh.
This, of course, teaches us of God’s concern for the nations. Israel was concerned with Israel and did not share God’s compassion for the rest of humanity. However, there is a lesson for the prophet and for each individual believer in this account.
What does Jesus mean when He says we are to love our neighbor as ourselves?
Jonah was concerned about how things affected Jonah. He fled from his assignment, because he knew God would forgive Jonah’s enemy if they repented. He wanted to die when this forgiveness became a reality. He wanted to die when his shade plant died. Everything for Jonah was about Jonah.
God did not tell Jonah to sit and watch to see the destruction of Nineveh. Jonah had no business sitting and waiting. If God was giving him a vacation, why did he not take the time to refresh himself and bask in the glory of some magnificent part of God’s creation? Instead, he sat in one place growing angrier and angrier.
Twice God asks the question, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?”
James 1:20 says, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.”
What is our anger usually about? Is it not centered on how things, circumstances and such, affect us? This is why James 1:19-21 says:
19Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. 20Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. 21So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.
God speaks. However, we do not always like what He has to say, nor what He wants to do. Sometimes it takes three days in the deep to change our minds, and sometimes it takes the hot sun and considerable discomfort for us to see ourselves.
Rather than fighting God, as Jonah did, let’s resolve to humbly accept the word God has planted on our hearts, like James tells us.
[i] Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
[ii] Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version) copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.